Fellow introvert—don't fall into the trap of believing that other people can read your mind.

Lesson from a Fellow Introvert: Other People Can’t Read Your Mind

You probably don’t seriously think that other people can read your mind, fellow introvert. But it’s too easy to act—or not act—as though you’re assuming people can.

Back in 1990, Stanford University psychology student and Ph.D. candidate Elizabeth Newton came up with her very own low-tech—but ultimately brilliant—version of the old TV game show “Name That Tune.”

For her doctoral dissertation, Newton was studying a common assumption we tend to have as human beings: “that others,” as she wrote in her dissertation, “will define situations just as we do.”

In other words, our thinking goes, the people in our midst basically see what we see in a particular circumstance. They feel what we feel, and perceive what we perceive, and read the same meaning into things as we ourselves do.


Not so much.

If I Could Read Your Mind …

You’ll remember the old saying about what assuming does to a person (and that person’s counterpart!).

Newton vividly and memorably demonstrated the wisdom of that adage in one of her experiments, which involved a game she referred to as “the tappers and the listeners.”

Newton divided the study’s participants into two small groups: the “tappers” and the “listeners.”

The tappers were given a list of 25 well-known songs (think “Happy Birthday” or “The Star-Spangled Banner”) and were then asked to pick one of them to “play” for one 
of the listeners.

Play as in tapping out the rhythm of the song on a table.

All the listener had to do—it seemed so childishly simple!—was listen to the tapping and, well, name that tune. How hard could it possibly be?

Not very, the tappers predicted beforehand. When asked, the tappers figured the listeners would correctly name that tune 50 percent of the time.


Wildly wrong.

The listeners were in fact able to correctly name that tune only 2.5 percent of the time, getting it right only three times out of the 120 songs the tappers “played.”

What happened?

Here’s Newton’s insightful explanation, in a nutshell: When you’re the person tapping a song, you “hear” both the melody of the song and its rhythm—plain as day—in your brain.

As Newton wrote in her dissertation:

“You cannot separate yourself from the tune to focus exclusively on your tapping—one is an extension of the other.”

“Your audience, meanwhile,” Newton wrote (i.e., the listener), “is not privy to your mental performance and must focus exclusively on your tapping.”

And a tap, Newton points out, “outside of the vivid musical context into which you have incorporated it, is just a tap.”

The Spotlight Effect

Newton’s fascinating study has been on my brain lately, as has a 2000 study by Cornell University psychologist Thomas Gilovich and colleagues that described the so-called spotlight effect: the mistaken belief that everyone around you is utterly riveted to everything you’re thinking and saying and doing.

Wrong again.

In the minds and experiences of others, the “spotlight” is not on you (only you think that!); the spotlight is on them—because everyone around them is utterly riveted to everything they are thinking and saying and doing.

Which, of course, is also false!

When I put the findings of the “tappers and listeners” study together with the findings of the “spotlight effect” study (and I encourage you to do the same), I come to a conclusion that should have been obvious long before now:

Nobody can read your mind.

Just as I am not a mind reader, neither are any of the people around me each day—because we are all too busy focusing on ourselves.

The same goes for you, fellow introvert.

And that’s a fact that has a significant impact on our lives as introverts.

Communication Is Crucial

For years now, I have wondered why, for example, my kids cannot seem to see the “painfully obvious” fact that I am trying to read.

Or why my co-worker cannot seem to see the “painfully obvious” fact that I am trying to write something.

Or why my fellow library user cannot seem to see the “painfully obvious” fact that I am trying to complete some 

Or why my _____ cannot seem to see the “painfully obvious” fact that I am trying to _____ .

Now I finally get it.

The “painfully obvious” isn’t.

(Well, it is—but only to me!)

So in order to get my needs met as an introvert, I can’t wait around for people to spot the “obvious.” That will just prolong my frustration.

Instead, I need to step up and tell people—politely, of course; it can be done kindly—that a) these needs exist, and b) I need to fulfill them.

It’s hard.

If you’re anything like me, you probably find it hard too.

But as Newton and Gilovich and no doubt others have shown, it’s crucial if you’re serious about being healthy and happy each day as the introvert you are.

Because the people around you not only have no idea what song you’re tapping.

They probably don’t hear you tapping at all.